Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Review: The Sumerians by Samuel Noah Kramer

(ISBN 0-226-45238-7)

Until the mid 1800's no one knew of the existence of a land called Sumer in the ancient Mesopotamian (Iran and Iraq) area. Finally, the gradual gathering of information and the incredible deciphering of cuneiform lead archeologists to realize that they had discovered a lost civilization -- and a huge, important one that had affected not only the civilizations that succeeded them, but still has influence on the world today.

While reading 'The Sumerians' I almost found that I was more excited and interested in the work of finding a new civilization than I was about the civilization itself. The gradual realization that there was a vast network of city-states before the Akkadians came as a true shock, especially since the Sumerians were not Semitic as the later Akkadians were. This was proved by the language they spoke, which is still being deciphered from the thousands of clay tablets found in the area.

It isn't that the Sumerians aren't interesting people to learn about. Actually, they are fascinating, from laws that allowed women to buy and own their own property to the schools for scribes (in which at least one woman's name has been found so far). The Sumerians likely had contacts as far as Egypt and Ethiopia to the west and India to the east. Many elements of their myths found their way into Biblical literature, from The Flood to Job. They had law courts, judges and councils of local men that the King's called upon (but didn't always listen to) when making major decisions. This was a far more complex civilization than people believed possible 5000 years ago.

The Sumerians did seem to be a contentious people who seemed to favor acerbic debate, at least from some of the works that have been deciphered. And here is the true glory of the Sumerian civilization and what kept it from being completely lost to the world: they wrote out everything from lists of natural world to copies of essays, myths, proclamations and laws. Thousands of these clay tablets have been found in the ruins of palaces, but also sometimes in the ruins of an edubba -- a school.

The Sumerians bequeathed their great gifts of civilization to the Akkadians who conquered them, but held on to much of what the Sumerians had created, including the complex form of writing called cuneiform. The Sumerian language, through cuneiform, became the 'Latin' of the distant ancient Near East -- a language that continued to be used in written documents that could be read by educated people no matter what their native tongue might be.

The Sumerian legacy is considerable and the discovery of the civilization fascinating. This relatively short book is a good overview of both, and a good basic work for the personal exploration of these fascinating people.

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